Opinion: It's All About Batteries

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In this opinion piece, Sarah Miller, editor-at-large at Energy Intelligence, and a former editor of Petroleum Intelligence Weekly, World Gas Intelligence and Energy Compass, looks at the pivotal role batteries could play in the low-carbon energy transition. For more insights on this and other trends affecting the energy industry, visit World Energy Opinion at Want to know how fast electric vehicles (EVs) will spread? Watch the cost and performance of batteries. Trying to decide whether natural gas will fulfill its much-hyped promise as a decades-long "bridge" to a clean-energy future? Keep an eye on whether batteries can solve solar and wind's intermittency problem. Even gas-fired home heating could be vulnerable if household solar-plus-battery systems catch on. It isn't all hype. Batteries are energy-system game changers, and they're changing fast. The linkage between the cost and staying power of batteries and the outlook for EVs is obvious. Batteries currently account for roughly half of the cost of a $40,000-plus EV, and concern about how far EVs can go between charges and how long it will take to recharge them is widely seen as the biggest hurdle to the "breakout" in sales that automakers are gearing up for (NE Mar.15'18). The price, size and weight of batteries will also be key to determining how quickly buses and trucks go electric, pulling down diesel demand along with that for gasoline (NE Sep.28'17). Battery costs have already come down by around 80% since 2010, and are, within a few years, projected to hit the magic $100 per kilowatt hour mark at which EVs are seen as being price competitive with conventional cars at the point of purchase, even before EVs' lower operating costs are factored in. Better batteries will also mean that solar power can be used not just when the sun shines, but during peak evening demand periods and for overnight charging of EVs. Similarly, they'll allow electricity from wind farms to be used across an entire day, rather than just when the wind blows, breaking the pattern of supply spurts interspersed with shortages that can make heavy reliance on renewable generation difficult to manage. It's already starting to happen. In sunny Southern Australia, Tesla founder Elon Musk's winning bet that his company could install 100 megawatts of battery storage at a wind farm in the power outage-plagued state in just 100 days is paying off big time, not just for Musk's own company, but for battery purveyors everywhere (NE Mar.15'18). That includes Samsung, from which Musk sourced the batteries he used in Australia, rather than taking them from Tesla's still incomplete Gigafactory in the US state of Nevada. In the wake of Tesla's success, another even larger wind-plus-battery project and a "virtual power plant" consisting of a network of 50,000 or more residential combined solar and battery systems are planned in Southern Australia, although recent election results there might see that plan change (related). Confidence in further reduction in battery costs and improvements in battery performance is deeply rooted. Virtually all of the world's leading automakers are either doing extensive research and development on batteries themselves or working with electronics companies that are (related). German engineering giant Siemens announced recently that it will be presenting a large-scale "portfolio of software-based systems as well as automation and drive technology" to potential industrial customers at major industry events worldwide this year, while US aircraft-maker Boeing, with one eye on developing all-electric planes, has invested in a start-up company working on high-density battery technology (NE Feb.22'18). So players of all shapes and sizes from all over the world are getting in on the act, and the long-elusive better battery is already here. But the even-better battery probably isn't far behind, and it may well turn out to be the next "big thing" coming to get oil and gas producers.

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